Johann Christian Ehlers (or Ehler) was a German gardener that worked for George Washington from 1789 until 1797. Ehlers finished his apprenticeship around 1767 at the Royal garden at Montbrillant, where his certificate was signed by George III. Between 1767 and 1789, Ehlers worked for both the King of Prussia and the King of England. Ehler was followed to Mount Vernon several years later by his wife Catherine who arrived from Bremen in 1792.1
Washington had a number of difficulties with Ehlers, once expressing unhappiness with the pace of his work. Washington wrote to his farm manager at the end of 1792 that, "It is my desire also that Mr. Butler will pay some attention to the conduct of the Gardener and the hands who are at work with him; so far as to see that they are not idle; for, though I will not charge them with idleness, I cannot forbear saying. . .that the matters entrusted to him appear to me to progress amazingly slow."2
Washington believed that Ehlers was also plagued with a drinking problem, about which Washington warned a new farm manager in December of 1793, writing that, "The Gardener has too great a propensity to drink and behaves improperly when in liquor; admonish him against it as much as you can, as he behaves well when sober, understands his business, and I believe is not naturally idle; but only so when occasioned by intoxications."3
Washington personally tried to counsel Ehlers about his duties and his faults, explaining, "I shall not close this letter with out exhorting you to refrain from Spirituous liquors, they will prove your ruin if you do not. Consider how little a drunken Man differs from a beast; the latter is not endowed with reason, the former deprives himself of it; and when that is the case acts like a brute; annoying, and disturbing everyone around him. . .it renders a person feeble and not only unable to serve others but to help himself, and being an act of his own he fall[s] from a state of usefulness into contempt and at length suffers, if not perishes in penury and want."4
Despite the admonitions, Ehlers continued to work at Mount Vernon. Ehlers once wrote complaining to Washington about the effect of the deer that were omnipresent at Mount Vernon. Washington wrote in response to the issue with confusion, reporting that "The Gardener complains of the injury which the shrubs (even in the yard) sustain from the Deer. I am at a loss therefore in determining whether to give up the Shrubs or the Deer! Is there no way of freightning them from these haunts?"5
Washington eventually decided to part company with his gardener in the fall of 1797. Washington wrote to a friend that Ehlers' was no longer employed and that there was "no inclination on my part to employ him any longer." At the time, Ehlers was making thirty-six pounds per year as a salary and was allowed five pounds, ten shillings "in part of Victuals." After leaving Mount Vernon, Ehlers worked for Richard Marshall Scott the nephew of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, and an attorney who served as the Collector of Customs for the Port of Dumfries, and in the Virginia House of Delegates. Ehlers later in life returned to Mount Vernon to work for Bushrod Washington.6
1. "George Washington to Howell Lewis, 4 August 1793," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 33, 42n; "Ledger B, 14 March 1792" (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
2. "George Washington to Anthony Whiting, 23 December 1792," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 32, 275.
3. "George Washington to William Pearce, 22 December 1793," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 33, 200-1.
4. "George Washington to John Christian Ehler, 23 December 1793," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 33, 214-6.
5. "George Washington to William Pearce, 28 December 1794," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 34, 74.
6. See account for John C. Ehlers, Mount Vernon Farm Ledger, 1797-1798 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 19, 20; "Richard Marshall Scott Comes Home," The Alexandria Observer: A Quarterly Publication of The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum 11, No. 1 (Spring 2005), 1-2.